Friday, September 01, 2017

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Sweet Ride,” by William Murray

(Editor’s note: This is the 150th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)

By Steven Nester
William Murray’s The Sweet Ride (1967) is a demur unbosoming of red-hot youth living on the mean streets of Malibu, California, and the seedy fringes of Hollywood. It might flirt with being a lurid exposé, yet it never actually leaps that line, because The Sweet Ride wasn’t written for the peer group it depicts—surfer dudes, struggling hep-cat musicians, and actors; nor was its target the wistful closet-rebel children of the silent majority who aspired to walk among them. The Sweet Ride is more in line with the tastes of the little old lady from Pasadena who has been searching for titillation without having to, you know, get naked. Murray, a veteran writer for The New Yorker, knows his audience and how to keep the subject matter safe yet tantalizing. This, however, doesn’t enervate the book’s intermittent grit, its jabs of realism, and its superior prose.

The narrator is Collie Ransom, a 35-year old tennis coach and hustler whose prowess in the beds of his students’ mothers is as robust as his scoring on the court. Well-meaning and honest to a point, Collie has little direction, and he could’ve been the man Holden Caulfield grew up to become if J.D. Salinger’s character had followed his big brother to Hollywood in The Catcher in the Rye. Along with Mousie Goodman, a porn actress; Choo Choo Smith, a jazz pianist; and Denny Maguire, the squeaky-clean surfer, Collie shares a house in Malibu, a place where it “sings of sin and surf and sand.” The serpent in this paradise is unwittingly introduced by Victoria “Vickie” Crawford, a beautiful young actress who falls for Denny, and he for her.

Denny is what you’d call a real sweetheart. A champion surfer and self-effacing, he’s “guileless … all there, on the surface of life,” as Collie observes. Vickie is seduced by his “innocence,” but an abortion, an evil stepmother, and her daddy’s wealth and social position boil beneath the surface and give her a depth and complexity Denny can scarcely fathom. When Vickie focuses on her route to stardom in the dirty and shallow business of Hollywood, she begins to see less of Denny, and he has difficulty coming to terms with that change.

Because Denny has worked as an extra in beach movies, Vickie attempts to take their relationship to another level by arranging for him to act in an episode in her new television series. Once inside the studio gates, though, he rails against the hypocrisy of the system while in the company of Brady Caswell, Vickie’s boss, lover—and tormentor. Denny and Vickie break up, and when she is subsequently discovered dumped on the Pacific Coast Highway—having been raped and beaten—Denny takes deadly action against the Tinseltown hyenas who’ve torn apart this couple’s puppy love.

The near-murder of Vickie occurs at the beginning of The Sweet Ride and gives author Murray the opportunity to stoke and tease readers’ anticipation by leading them, detail upon detail, through the events that resulted in that tragedy. Enhancing the narration are Murray’s soliloquies, and he shines during the several brief passages of interior monologue that run through Collie’s head as the tennis coach processes his thoughts on the various occurrences around him.

A perusal of Murray’s curriculum vitae reveals that besides earning his daily bread on the staff of The New Yorker (he wrote the “Letter from Italy” column for many years), his output was prodigious and diverse. He penned nine entries in a mystery-fiction series starring professional magician and racetrack enthusiast Shifty Lou Anderson (beginning with 1984’s Tip on a Dead Crab), as well as books on horse racing and another on opera (he aspired early on to become an opera singer himself). Murray also wrote a memoir titled Janet, My Mother, and Me (2000), which details his mother’s love affair with prolific New Yorker writer Janet Flanner.

Of this author’s writing style, it might be said that while you can take the boy out of The New Yorker, you can’t take The New Yorker out of the boy. At times the dialogue (“We’re cool, always cool, man”) and descriptions (“appurtenances of femininity”) sound as if William Shawn, that magazine’s stodgy but exacting editor, was breathing down Murray’s neck as he typed. The ending of the novel skirts any irony of reality, and Murray seems not to trust the voice and insight of Collie as narrator to bring this tale to a proper conclusion. Instead, a Greek chorus of voices (Vickie’s stepmother, Choo Choo, et. al.) take turns delivering their closing statements about the events at hand, which draws the drama away from those who were actually involved in it.

(Left) Jacqueline Bisset and Michael Sarrazin in the 1968 film version.

Murray might’ve been slumming in writing a book that capitalized on the youth movement, but his plotting is like clockwork, and the book provides an excellent example of how to let the cat out of the bag at the beginning, then backtrack to develop plot and characterization that show how and why things turned out as they did. Readers who can’t stomach or believe how genteel and formal prose can capture Southern California on the down-low in the late 1960s, can always turn instead to the 1968 movie adaptation of this story, starring Jacqueline Bisset as Vickie, Michael Sarrazin as Denny, and Tony Franciosa (not yet familiar for his role on The Name of the Game) as Collie. What’s worth the price of admission here is Bob Denver, of Gilligan’s Island fame, moving and grooving as the hipster musician Choo Choo.

The Sweet Ride is a Model T sheathed in the body of a Corvette. It might not be very fast, but it’s dependable.


Keith Raffel said...

Okay, I'm hooked. (The first few entries in William Murray's Shifty Anderson are among my faves.)

Keith Raffel said...

Only one problem. Cannot find a copy for less than $30.